On 3-D printing, the importance of modeling, and approaching problems the way elephants do.
FORTUNE — Peter Weijmarshausen grew up in the Netherlands. Even as a child he had an entrepreneurial spirit, and he always found ways to make money, building businesses such as a car washing service and lawn care for neighbors.
He loved coding and started playing with computers at a young age. When he went to study at the Technical University of Eindhoven, he studied applied physics and kept up his interest in computers. After the Internet emerged in the 1990s, Weijmarshausen began to join startup companies, fueled by his passion for open source software. That was especially true for 3-D modeling and, eventually, 3-D printing. “With 3-D printing, your imagination is your only limitation,” Weijmarshausen said.
He and his fellow co-founders began to build Shapeways — an online 3-D printing marketplace — in March 2007. People can make, buy, and sell 3-D printed products through the site, and Weijmarshausen’s goal is to make it easy for people to create unique products. Weijmarshausen, 42, is based in New York. He spoke with Fortune.
1. What business or technology person do you admire most? Why?
One of the companies that jumps out at me is Amazon AMZN . From what I can tell, they really put their customers in the center. They want to make a company that values their customers, and they don’t have huge margins. What they do every time they have an improvement in their service that reduces their cost, they give all of that value back to their customers. They give the customer an ever-better value for their money.
That resonates well with me. That’s how you can build a truly magnificent experience that is compelling for an enormous amount of people. It’s not about making a few dollars quickly. It’s about building a sustainable business that makes all of its customers happy and provides true value. If you do that, then, in the end, as a business you’re also making money, lots of money. But it’s first and foremost about the customer and getting them the most value. And of course the people that work with Jeff Bezos are supporting that vision. And in the beginning, a lot of people were very skeptical or cynical about it. But he’s prevailed, and he’s built an amazing company. That’s quite something.
2. What technology sector excites you most?
It probably won’t surprise you that I’ll say 3-D printing. It has the ability to truly disrupt the way we think about products. Way back in the 1800s and before, products were made by hand. And then came along the industrial revolution where we had mass manufacturing. Mass manufacturing has given us a lot of really cool products, but they’re all the same. What 3-D printing brings on top of mass manufacturing is the ability for the individual to get the exact product that they want and not just what is available.
To me, that is such a compelling concept. It takes a while to really grasp because it’s no longer big corporations that figure out what you might want by deciding what is the lowest common denominator and mass-producing it. No — it’s you who has an idea for what you want. Our job is to make it easy for you to express what you want, and then we’ll make it for you at a reasonable price. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Not that you get pushed into buying certain things, but that you can decide what you want. Whether it’s clothing or jewelry or gadgets, it doesn’t really matter. The ability to truly influence the products that you get, that’s the power that 3-D printing brings.
3. Is business school necessary for entrepreneurs?
I didn’t go to business school, and I think I’m a pretty good entrepreneur. I see a lot of entrepreneurs who didn’t go to business school. I think maybe you aren’t born an entrepreneur, but it’s something that you start acting on early in life. Even as early as before 10 years old, it’s like this freedom that people feel. Why would I get a job if I can start doing things in a smart way? I always found projects or opportunities to make money instead of jobs. It’s a way of thinking that at some point you have to get, then you get better at it. As a company like Shapeways becomes bigger and bigger, you have to learn a few things. Like how do you advance and expand into marketing. Software engineering was already in my blood, and I studied applied physics, so I understood the technology really well. Business school can help you get the framework and context even better, but if you’re open to learning, you can do it perfectly well without business school.
4. What is the best advice you ever received?
It’s actually from my father. He said to me, “Pete, you should approach problems the way elephants can push over trees.” Elephants are amazingly strong creatures. In India and Southeast Asia, they use elephants to push over trees. The elephant slowly walks toward the tree, and pushes his head against the tree until the tree cracks and it falls over. The elephant doesn’t run into the tree, or they would have severe trauma problems. And so he walks and pushes and pushes and pushes until the tree cracks. That’s the way you should approach problems. If you run into them, you will hurt yourself and it won’t be solved. But if you slowly approach and then you analyze and push and push and push until the problem is solved, that’s the successful way of doing it. It’s a weird metaphor, but it actually works.
5. What is your greatest achievement?
It’s a bit of a presumptuous question, but I’m proud of what we have achieved at Shapeways. We are already making so many of our customers happy, and we still have so much opportunity that we can go for, and so many new customers that we can make happy. I think it’s the greatest thing that I’ve ever been a part of.
6. What was the most important thing you learned in school?
I studied applied physics, and there’s a lot of concrete things that you learn, but that’s not the most important thing that I learned. The most important thing that I learned in my university years is model making. That means in a scientific approach to problems, if you hopefully have data, you make a model. The model is basically your hypothesis that describes your problem. And then you see whether your model fits the data you have, and if that’s true, that’s the first step of validating your model. The second step is whether the model can predict the future. You can come up with some experiments that nobody has ever done, you can do them, and they still fit the model. If you have those two proof points, then you know that the model is valid. That not only works for physics, but it works for science in general and beyond that. It’s a really strong way to solve problems. You see a problem, you come up with a hypothesis, a model that describes how the problem is solved, and you look at the data to see whether it fits. And if it works, then you’ve solved it. Because now, you not only have an antidote or something that gets rid of the symptoms, but you deeply understand what it was, and how to get around it. Model building is something I learned from university that has been priceless.
7. What is one goal that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime?
I love fast cars. In Europe I used to race cars on an amateur level. If I ever had the opportunity to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I would jump at it.
8. What was your first job?
I’ve always looked for opportunities to make money by starting small businesses. The most fun one was gardening. I learned it from a father of a friend of mine. I noticed that he had a beautiful lawn, and I asked him what he did. He said it’s all about fertilizer and taking care of the weeds. That’s something that is a part of me; I like to learn and apply. I said to my dad, “I can make your lawn look like a golf course.” He said, “Okay, do it.” So I used fertilizer and all the gardening stuff and worked on it with a passion. Pretty soon his lawn was the best on the street. My neighbors knew my dad, and they asked him what he did to make it look like that. He said, “Well, that’s actually my son.” So they said to me, “Can you do that for me too?” So I borrowed my dad’s equipment, and I haggled with my neighbors. Pretty soon I was doing more gardening than I really cared for.
9. What do you do for fun?
I brew my own beer, which I think is a lot of fun to do. I brew all kinds. I like IPAs, lagers, and Belgian Trappist beers. It’s about doing it well and having a nice, tasty, quality beer. I got into brewing beer because I found after I moved to the U.S., it was hard to find Belgian Trappists, and they were expensive if you did find them. So I wondered, “How hard could it be to brew my own?”
Because of the process, I love cooking too. Beer is a little more complicated than cooking, so that’s fun. I race cars, like I mentioned. I love to watch movies. I love to sail, I love to dive. So, quite a few things.
10. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I would fly, like Superman. The ability to quickly go from one place on this planet to another. As an entrepreneur, you have to be in so many different places at the same time, and going from A to B takes way too long. If you could fly quickly or teleport, of course that would be immensely handy.
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